“Exhibition” is too small a word to describe Hello, LA: Clive Piercy, Inside the Mind of a Designer.
The show—currently on view at the Williamson Gallery at ArtCenter College of Design’s Hillside Campus—is a lovingly curated look at the life and work of Clive Piercy (1955–2017), the British expat turned Los Angeles graphic designer who founded the Santa Monica-based design and communication firms Ph.D and Air Conditioned LA and who taught at the College for 17 years.
But Hello, LA goes beyond presenting Piercy’s oeuvre. The exhibition also explores the beautiful and mundane of the L.A. cityscape; reminds us how carefully chosen words—or typographic symbols—can elicit joy; and makes a moving statement about the way in which memories of loved ones inhabit our daily lives long after they’ve passed.
“I wanted his dynamic sense of graphics to really permeate the space,” said Ann Field, Piercy’s wife, collaborator and the chair of ArtCenter’s Illustration department, and one of the co-curators of the exhibition, just a few days before the exhibition opened to the public. “Clive knew how to use color and have things be impactful.”
The exhibition makes an impression before visitors even cross its threshold. The gallery walls facing the main entrance of the College, normally painted white—more in concert with the spartan ArtCenter aesthetic—have been recast in vibrant, neon colors and adorned with a supersized atom dingbat, giving the gallery an ebullient, mid-century vibe.
That giant dingbat is a reference to Piercy’s book Pretty Vacant: The Los Angeles Dingbat Observed (2003, Chronicle Books), a nearly 450-page collection of photographs of low-rise “dingbat” apartment buildings that captured his eye, paired with graphical and typographic interventions, inspired by the oversized dingbats that often embellished the buildings’ exteriors.
I feel like Clive was trying to make sense of where he lived. Los Angeles is not beautiful like Brighton—where we came from—it has a different beauty.Ann FieldChair, Illustration and wife of Clive Piercy
“Clive spent many Saturdays driving the streets of L.A. and he was very much struck by this style of architecture, which is unique to this city,” said Field, pointing to images from the book on display in the exhibition. “I feel like he was trying to make sense in a way of where he lived, because Los Angeles is not beautiful like Brighton—where we came from—it has a different beauty. I think with Pretty Vacant that Clive was searching for things he could connect with—the typography and the fact that these dingbats were buildings but that they were also signs.”
Similar to the presentation of Pretty Vacant, in which the reader is free to draw their own conclusions as to any deeper meanings behind a photographic collection of building facades, Hello, LA spends little time telling its audience how to appreciate Piercy’s work or his legacy.
Rather, the exhibition—co-curated by Denise Gonzalez Crisp, a professor of graphic design at North Carolina State University, and Greg Turpan, founder of home goods store Turpan in Santa Monica—allows his work to exist side-by-side with his inspirations. The two end up blending together, like the color gradients of the ubiquitous Colby Poster Printing Company posters Piercy loved and which bestrewed L.A. telephone poles for six decades, advertising everything from rock concerts to flea markets to local politicians.
“When Colby closed down in 2012, the company had all these posters in tables under the printing press, and they let Clive take some,” said Field, explaining that Piercy went on to donate several of his Colby posters to the College’s Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography, a few of which are on display in the exhibition. “Those posters are a part of L.A.’s history. And they’re not about high culture, or low culture—they’re just about what’s going on.”
One tall wall of the gallery is peppered top-to-bottom with a virtual explosion of Piercy’s inspirations. Among the dozens of works on display is a print by English artist Peter Blake’s 1962 work The Toy Shop, in which the Pop Art giant juxtaposed cultural images (Elvis, the Royal Air Force roundrel) alongside childhood toys into a three-dimensional collage in a shop window.
“Clive loved collectibles and when we first moved to L.A. we collected a lot of old robots,” said Field, pointing to a tin robot sitting atop a white desk in in the gallery. “We just thought they were charming and silly.”
That white desk, designed by Piercy, stands at the spiritual center of the exhibition—not so much a recreation of Piercy’s Air Conditioned workspace as a transplanting of it. The desk is flanked by Piercy’s library, whose books are in the process of being placed on the shelves—also designed by Piercy—in the exact same order as Piercy left them when he passed away in 2017.
I really took it all into consideration. Like how what you think about and what you love is just as important as what you’ve learned.Ann FieldChair, Illustration and wife of Clive Piercy
Field said she first approached Stephen Nowlin (MFA 78), the former head of ArtCenter Exhibitions, in 2018 with the idea of creating an exhibition that would celebrate both Piercy’s passion for design and his influence as an educator. “Clive was a very gifted teacher and he was committed to the students and their work,” said Ann. “He wasn’t dictatorial. He was serious, but he was also very authentic with them. And that helped him get the best work out of them.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020 and all exhibitions at the College were put on hold, Field had time to rethink what an exhibition celebrating Piercy could look like. As the years passed, the idea for the show transformed into an immersive experience that would allow others to step into Piercy’s mind. “I really took it all into consideration,” said Field. “Like how what you think about and what you love is just as important as what you’ve learned.”
Five years after it was first conceived, the exhibition has finally become a reality.
“As we started to put the bigger pieces up on the walls, all of a sudden it felt like he was here,” said Field, who acknowledged the rare opportunity Hello, LA presents to celebrate Piercy’s life with the larger world. “Clive spoke through his work, he knew how to make things truly resonate, and I think his spirit is in this.”
Hello, LA: Clive Piercy, Inside the Mind of a Designer runs through June 24 at the Williamson Gallery at ArtCenter College of Design.